Star Wars: Empire At War Demo – First Play

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a galactic civil war. All together now, in yellow scrolling letters: “It is a period of civil war.” In Empire At War you choose a side, or so I’m led to believe; in the demo, your side is chosen for you: You’re Rebel Scum.

This review isn’t about Empire at War proper – it’s about the 700-odd megabyte demo. So while the tutorial runs you through a few Imperial “missions”, for the actual demo campaign (think of it as being like a single mission with multiple parts) you’re basically stuck being the Rebel Alliance.

The demo campaign provides 2 planetary systems (one is your base) and an asteroid belt to conquer, with the imperial base on Tatooine being your final objective.

The galactic map is where you control your troop movements between planets. You drag fleets and special units between planets, and drop them into special activity slots on the map. All the units are space-transportable – you don’t need to build transport ships, just drag the poor little men into space, and damned if they don’t build their own on the way up there! The only time you see the transports (for the Alliance, the white cocoa-bean shaped transports used to escape Hoth in Empire Strikes Back) is when reinforcements are landed on a land battle map, or when a fleet containing transports is engaged in space combat.

The galactic map has a sub-level: the Planetary map. You can zoom in to build planetary defenses and produce units. If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like towns in Civilization, well, yes. Yes, it does.

When enemy fleets bump into one another in the same location, whether in space or on the ground, well, you end up in a fight.

Space combat is a large-scale RTS engagement, and by that I mean that if you’ve built anything with a hangar (like a Star Destroyer, for example), it’ll launch its own fleet(s) of interceptor units. That’s cool when you see it the first time. The units are viewed from a zoom an order of magnitude further away than the land battles, but the maps are 2D, with asteroid fields and weird spatial anomalies providing a mazelike area of engagement. If the enemy owns a space station around the target planet, that’s going to be your objective.

If you survive the encounter with the enemy space fleet (or if your fleet is small enough to slip straight past), you get to have a crack at their ground units, to try to take over the position.

Land combat is a squad-scale RTS – you move groups of units around the map, and try to capture Reinforcement Points and associated small build pads that let you bring in more of your troops and put up a small healing station or laser turret, respectively. No resource collection as such – just capturing and holding the RPs.

Through it all, a magical John Williams soundtrack – say what you like about Lucasarts having a spotty track record, but they don’t disappoint in the audio department. The sounds are all recognizable from the movies, and feel right at home.

So, that’s what the demo is, and what there is to like about it. Now – why won’t I be rushing out to buy the full game?

The Imperial March (Riverdance Edition)
For me, it’s the death of a thousand cuts. Too many things annoyed me while playing the game:

There are four usable ground units in the demo campaign, plus civilians. And they suck. That’s not enough.

Unit selection is tricky, and seems a little flaky.

When zooming out too far to the “grand tactical” view of an engagement, the unit controls disappear. No more special abilities, no more options – you need to zoom back in to “real” unit level (which triggers a jarring transition) to get the cluttered control panel to reappear. The scale is a constant problem – I need to see more than I can, but I don’t want to sacrifice actually being able to do anything with my troops to do it. Another level of regular zoom would have been most welcome.

For a giggle, try the Tom Tucker tutorial voiceover. If they actually got Seth MacFarlane in to do a “serious” voiceover, I feel kinda bad for him. His “serious newsreader” voice just makes me laugh, because my brain is evil. Every time the voiceover guy said anything- well, it went like this: “You can withdraw units from a map using the withdraw button. All this, and Diane’s breasts at eleven.” I also found myself waiting for the voiceover guy to snap into Brian-on-crack mode.

The animations of people skipping, er, I mean walking, are also laughable. It’s a war. When I command troops to move to a certain location, I do NOT mean “as if you were a Riverdance troupe”. At worst, “riverdance to that location” should be a separate action button, and really not the default. Knees everywhere, I tell you.

And call me a stupid old prick, but stuff happens too quickly. Admittedly, I didn’t look for a slowdown option, but the speed at which your troops move, the enemy moves, and the close-in map zoom conspire to make it an exercise in frustration and missed clicks. And the bloody zerglings online aren’t going to slow the game down for you, ohhh, no.

So, All Up

If the demo just had more units, it’d probably overcome its limitations. Some people obviously agree, and even now, those pesky Rebel mod makers are planting their seed in the fertile mud of the demo.

As it is, unmodified with just the four units, the demo rates 4/10. The full game is probably better. Try the mods if you’re desperate for an RTS fix.